Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Xbox Dashboard update

When you log in today, you'll get an Xbox 360 Dashboard update.

The update has got some pretty cool features, in particular are those aimed a accessories that will launch this fall; features that are tit-for-tat for the as-yet released Sony PS3; Zune integration ("Zune"); and a bunch of needed performance and usability improvements for the system.

I've downloaded the updated, and I'm happy with it. It's snappier performance-wise, and my list of Xbox Live Arcade games populates way faster than it painfully did in the past. And I like the ability to now automatically download trial versions of new arcade games as they're released. And the HD-DVD tie-ins are cool.

What's missing? How about extending that auto download to demos (at least), and other content (videos, etc.)? To make it work, how about they add Windows XP Media Center Edition functionality equivalent to "keep until" ("I watch"/"I delete"/Space is needed"/etc.)? Why no streaming video from the Internet (Sure, you can stream from a PC with Windows Media Player 11, but that nearly hosed by system when I installed the beta; why not extend that to streaming from the Internet)? I'm also going to try playing DiVX from a "CD or DVD data" disc, but I suspect it won't be there.

Anyway, below is the full list, with my occasional commentary (of course).

New Features

  • HD 1080p video mode support over VGA and component cables. (Removes that PS3 differentiating factor)
  • Xbox 360 HD DVD Player support. (Of course)
  • Stream WMV video from a Windows PC running Windows Media Player 11, Zune software, or Windows Media Connect.
  • Play video from storage devices such as USB flash drives, Xbox 360 Memory Units, etc.
  • Play video from CD or DVD data discs. (Nice!)
  • Xbox 360 Wireless Headset support, including battery level indicator in the Xbox Guide. (OK, but I'd rather a visual indicator on my controller, too -- like my quadrant on the ring light being yellow when the headset is muted.)
  • Video support for 50 Hz HDTV modes (DVD and HD DVD only).
  • Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel support. (Duh)
  • Set up automatic downloads of newly released Xbox Live Arcade trial games. (I'm actually more excited about this than I thought I would be; good usability add, and a great nod to them paying attention to the success of Xbox Live Arcade)
  • Support for upcoming release of XNA Game Studio Express (separate download and subscription required.) (I am so going to leverage this, if I can get some current IP holders to give me permission)
  • Stream music, pictures and video from a Zune device. (Again, why not from the Internet, too?)

Xbox Live Arcade

  • Lightning-fast enumeration and listing of all Xbox Live® Arcade games on the console. (It's true)
  • Find games quickly with two new sort options: Recently Played and By Category. (Another needed usability improvement)
  • Have all new Xbox Live Arcade games at the ready with auto downloads. Auto downloads optionally adds newly released trial versions of games to active downloads when you enter Xbox Live Arcade. (Ooh, list the same feature in multiple places, so you can make it look like you have a larger feature set in this release!)
  • View full achievement info in Xbox Live Arcade, including icons, achievement point details, and descriptions.
  • Friends leaderboard: Compare yourself with friends and view leaderboard details right from the Xbox dashboard.
  • Tell a friend: Send a message to a friend about your newest favorite Xbox Live Arcade game.

DVD Player

  • Optionally disable notifications from Xbox Live while watching DVD movies. (Finally! How about adding that when I'm watching TV piped from my Windows XP Media Center Edition PC?)
  • Improved support for audio streams on incorrectly authored DVDs.
  • Better handling of unreadable discs. (Very cool; more playability out of discs that were previously SOL)
  • Updated count-down timer.
  • HD DVD player support. (Just because you list it more than once doesn't make it cooler)
  • Added zoom support for non-anamorphic content. (Good, basic DVD feature added to enhance the Xbox 360 as a DVD player; smart)
  • Added support to Family Settings to block Unrated Content (Smart, and fits into their new "Family Protection" effort; however, they implemented this badly in the Windows Media Player 11 beta, and it blocked all of my content -- inlcuding cartoons -- and not just the DOAX2 cartoons ;-) !)

Video Player

  • Improved support for extended all black scenes in WMV content.
  • Added support for Windows Media Video 9 Advanced profile video.
  • Screen saver now becomes active when videos are paused. (Good for plasma TV owners)
  • Now shares UI and player controls with DVD player. (Much more integrated experience)
  • Improved video playback while downloading from Xbox Live. (Needed bug fix)
  • Added skip controls (forward approx. 30 seconds, back approx. 7 seconds). (This rocks! Being a ReplayTV owner, I was jonesing for this functionality)
  • Improved messaging around unplayable video content. ("Why" is always good ...)
  • Added time elapsed and time remaining displays. (Again, additions that make the Xbox 360 a more full-featured replacement media device)
  • Improved playback of high bit-rate HD content on fragmented hard drives. (My Xbox 360 hard drive seems to be acting fragmented, so this is welcome; but how about adding a defrag tool, yo?)
  • Improved visual quality of video playback.
  • Added selectable display modes: default and letterbox zoom.

Localization

  • New locale setting for China
  • Improved German translations in console settings.
  • Improved German translations in memory area.
  • Improved Japanese translations in Family Settings.
  • Added localized text for all supported languages in pictures area
  • Improved Spanish translations in camera effects.
  • Improved locale-specific decimal denominators.
  • Added localization support for title menu and main menu in the DVD player.
  • Added localization support for “Attempting to Read Media” system message.

Memory Area

  • Added support for Xbox 360 HD DVD Player content.
  • Added new page for viewing content size by category. (Much easier for determining "bigger bang for the buck" as I'm trying to free up room on the undersized hard drive)

Other System Improvements

  • Updated support for new Daylight Savings changes coming in 2007. (Wow; somebody's being proactive)
  • Improved support for games to better handle host migration in multi-player matches. (I think this is better handling of "Switch the party leader"; won't likely benefit Halo 2, but I'm hoping Xbox 360-native games benefit)
  • Improved Xbox Live Vision camera support for changing room lighting while zooming. (Catching up with the Logitech PC cameras)
  • Background downloaded videos appear in video area (Good feature)
  • Improved Xbox Live Vision camera support while using VGA.
  • Playing photo slideshows from PC now maintains picture folder hierarchy. (I didn't know this was missing, but that would have pissed me off)
  • Improved user experience when playing and deleting videos from the Games or Media areas. (I need to see what this is -- I'm hoping it's a consistent experience to be able to play or delete from either place)
  • Improved handling of invalid characters during Xbox Live signup.
  • Better handling of watermarks in gamer cards.
  • Improved text for Windows Media Connect. (Yay! No more "I remember what this is supposed to say...")
  • Improved UI performance in Media Center Extender (Gonna check this out, too, since I used this feature heavily)
  • Improved connection support for Buffalo WZR-G108 wireless router when using Xbox 360 Wireless Adapter. (Interesting; they in bed with Bufalo somewhere? Seems like Linksys/D-Link/Netgear would be bigger focuses)
  • Redownload of deleted Arcade Games no longer re-enumerates all games on the Arcade page.
  • Improved visual display of text in themes. (Might make some previously unusable themes usable)
  • Improved support for CD playback after signing up for Xbox Live and losing network connectivity.
  • Improved support for long names of items memory area.
  • Improved handling of gamer pictures downloaded from Xbox Live.
  • Improved background download notifications when downloading many small items from Xbox Live. (Less annoying)
  • Improved support for custom backgrounds after returning to the Xbox Dashboard from the Account Management area.
  • Improved network reliability between Windows Media Center Extender on Windows Vista and Xbox 360 consoles using Xbox 360 Wireless Adapter. (Good; once (if) I upgrade my PC)
  • Improved voice chat quality in Xbox Dashboard and in-game chats. (So, we can actually understand what's said?)
  • Improved messaging when failing to connect to Windows Media Center Extender. (That would make me curse less)
  • Improved USB keyboard support when using a USB hub.
  • Improved consistency of user experience when deleting various types of content.
  • Improved handling of low storage space for background downloads.
  • Improved handling of Picture streaming from attached Digital Cameras over MTP protocol
  • Improved error messaging for optional iPod support download when storage devices are full.
  • Improved handling of multi-key repeating for USB keyboards.
  • Expanded Family Settings to include support for blocking unrated DVDs and videos.
  • Added ability to clear space from storage devices in download areas. (Maybe this is the Windows XP MCE functionality I mentioned above?)
  • Added support for low-speed and full-speed USB keyboards.
  • Improved CapsLock behavior for USB keyboards.
  • Improved look and feel in Xbox Live Marketplace and Xbox Live Arcade areas. (Subtle, but good, solid stuff)
  • Added redeem code option to Xbox Live signup. (Yay!)
  • Removed system message at the start of new downloads. Messages will be displayed for completed items. (Freaking finally!)
  • Added support for CCV credit card validation field in Xbox Live Marketplace purchase areas. (Credit card Operating Regulatons requirement; I know ;-)
  • Updated “More Information” instructions in the Xbox Dashboard for connecting an Xbox 360 console to a Windows PC to stream digital media content.
  • Added auto-scroll to long text descriptions in Xbox Dashboard UI.
  • Improved support for DVD insertion while playing a video file.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Oddworld Inhabitants announce feature film

I was bummed when the massively under-appreciated (read: commercially disappointing) Stranger's Wrath video game from Oddworld Inhabitants ostensibly caused the company to turn its back on making video games.

I mean, Abe's Odyssey remains one of my all-time favorite PC games. The sequels rocked. Stranger's Wrath is quirky and stylish and great.

But the silver lining in that announcement was the hint of something else for the company -- something like movies.

Oddworld Inhabitants co-founder Lorne Lanning announced in his keynote at the GameCity event (in Nottingham, England) that he will be directing the company's first CGI movie, Citizen Siege. Not only will this movie feature the beautiful and stylish and detailed art that sets Oddworld games apart from others, but there will be a companion video game for the film, using the same creative assets.

Citizen Siege will be a "politically edgy sci-fi action thriller," will be produced in conjunction with Vanguard Animation (Valiant), with John Williams, (optioned/developed/produced Shrek/2/3 over at Dreamworks) and will be the film's producer. Makes sense, since he produced Valiant, and he's also producing Vanguard's two in-production films, Happily Never After and Space Chimps.

I'm excited to see what Oddworld Inhabitants does on the big screen, and I'm glad they're creatively alove and kicking.

And they should hire me for voice acting.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

LEGO Batman?

Rumors are rampant that Traveller's Tales. the genii behind LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, are doing the LEGO treatment again -- this time, to the Batman franchise.

Holy Blocky Boy Wonder, this would be cool -- the Batman universe is arguably as rich as the Star Wars universe, and is coming on 70 years of history and backstory.

No official announcement yet, but ComputerAndVideoGames.com did get this nugget from development director Jonathan Smith "who when asked about the game told us that considering the studio's long running partnership with LEGO, 'we will definitely will be making more LEGO games in the future.'"

Let's make it truly next-gen this time, huh?

Lik-Sang shuttered

Lik-Sang, an online import gaming retailer headquartered in Hong Kong, has gone out of business.

The announcement of closure follows a Sony win (the second legal case against Lik-Sang) against "grey importing". Lik-Sang is shutting down because the Sony win ostensibly opens the door for future lawsuits (and wins).

Pascal Clarysse (who was the marketing manager for Lik-Sang), said:
"Today is Sony Europe's victory about the PSP, tomorrow is Sony Europe's ongoing pressure about PlayStation 3. With this precedent set, next week could already be the stage for complaints from Sony America about the same thing, or from other console manufacturers about other consoles to other regions, or even from any publisher about any specific software title to any country they don't see fit."
I can't speak to the grey importing issue, but I got some good (legitimate) stuff from them I couldn't get anywhere else, so I'm bummed they're gone.

I hope there's more to the story, because it seems pretty off if Sony killed a smaller company for the import issue.

Clarysse had stronger words for Sony, too:
"Sony Europe's very own top directors [Clarysse named names; and Sony retorted puchases were for "investigatory purposes"] repeatedly got their Sony PSP hard or software imports in nicely packaged Lik-Sang parcels with free Lik-Sang mugs or Lik-Sang badge holders, starting just two days after Japan's official release, as early as December 14, 2004 (more than nine months earlier than the legal action).

"Blame it on Sony. That's the latest dark spot in their shameful track record as gaming industry leader. The Empire finally 'won,' few dominating retailers from the UK probably will rejoice [in] the news, but everybody else in the gaming world lost something today."
Sony, on the other hand, issued an uncharacteristically aggressive response by way of game mag MCV:
"Lik Sang did not contest this case (ie. they did not turn up and therefore incurred no legal costs). We have been awarded substantial costs against Lik Sang which have not been paid. We would therefore strongly deny that our actions have had anything to do with this website closing (we assume the legal entity is still trading) and would suggest that this release is sour grapes on behalf of Lik Sang which is aimed to belittle Sony Computer Entertainment and the British judicial system that ruled against them."
Bummer ...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

PlayStation 3 launch details

Today was Sony Gamer's Day, and SCEE announced a bunch o' stuff about the PlayStation 3 launch.

The shots across the Microsoft Xbox 360 bow include Sony's online service being free, 21 titles available at launch, and a special $15 memory card adapter that will let you transfer game saves from PSOne and PS2 memory cards onto the hard drive of the PS3 (Which is better than what Microsoft, but that doesn't necessarily mean all PSO and PS2 games will be backwards compatible, though).

The "we can do that, too" movement from Sony is the Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby Blu-ray disc pack-in (Microsoft's HD-DVD drive will have Peter Jackson's King Kong). Honestly, this is an area in which Sony should excel, because of the studio connection.

The "mheh"-ness in the launch comes from a delayed PS3 EU launch that lets Microsoft get further entrenched (if they can get their act together in that region), Sony calling their single online ID the "PlayStation profile" (Uh, the "Gamer tag" moniker wins), downloadable games being "under $15" ($15 is expensive compared to Xbox Live Arcade), and sub-par and/or old games that other gamers have enjoyed for some time (Blazing Angels: Squadrons of WWII; Fight Night Round 3; The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion; F.E.A.R.) that aren't as compelling as new or console-exclusive titles. Seriously, even thought the sports titles will likely be better than Xbox 360's in the same genre, those titles are available on every other system.

It does look like Sony will avoid the "crappier-on-next-gen" titles (like from Activision) with which the Xbox 360 was saddled (Marvel: Ultimate Alliance and Tony Hawk's Project 8 look to be really solid titles from that company this round, but are also available on the other systems).

Here's the full list of PS3 launch titles:
  1. Blazing Angels: Squadrons of WWII (Ubisoft)
  2. Call of Duty 3 (Activision)
  3. Fight Night Round 3 (Electronic Arts)
  4. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda Softworks)
  5. F.E.A.R. (Vivendi Universal Games)
  6. Full Auto 2: Battlelines (Sega)
  7. Genji: Days of the Blade (Sony)
  8. Madden NFL 07 (Electronic Arts)
  9. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (Activision)
  10. Mobile Suit Gundam: Crossfire (Namco Bandai Games)
  11. NBA 07 (Sony)
  12. NBA 2K7 (2K Sports)
  13. Need For Speed Carbon (Electronic Arts)
  14. NHL 2K7 (2K Sports)
  15. Resistance: Fall of Man (Sony)
  16. Ridge Racer 7 (Namco Bandai)
  17. Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega)
  18. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07 (Electronic Arts)
  19. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas (Ubisoft)
  20. Tony Hawk's Project 8 (Activision)
  21. Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom (Sony Online Entertainment)

"Let the games begin!"

(Separated by a year and without equal footing in all territories.)

Want to be a VIP for "Marvel: Ultimate Alliance"?

As a VIP member to the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance Website, you get access to cool stuff -- like developer / designer / producer blogs, exclusive videos, early character reveals (like today's Deadpool), etc.

You have to have an invite code to get in to the VIP section, so if you want in, contact me with your name and Email -- first 30 get an invite code from me.

October 25th is coming ...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Xbox is back up ...

... Sort of. Xbox Live is up, Lumines is available for download, and Xbox.com is dog slow (at least it was early this morning).

Looks like they went a bit long on the upgrade, and at 12:30 PDT they had "a couple of issues that they need to clear up", and by 3 a.m. they were "finishing up some work on Xbox.com and the forums" -- so I'm guessing there are some tailing effects to that effort.

UPDATED: Confirmation of wonkiness from MajorNelson.com.

I imagine there are some tired ops guys out there today.

I haven't seen anything about what the "amazing new features" are. That's a little irritating.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"Gears of War" After Hours Preview Oct. 21

GameStop (and I'm assuming EB Games, since GameStop owns them now) is having an early preview event for Gears of War, which officially ships Nov. 7 (with "Emergence Day" officially on Nov. 12; WTF?).
"After participating stores close, customers 17 years of age or older will be readmitted for a sneak peek at exclusive video content for Gears of War. Anyone caught with a fake moustache will be sent home immediately, without a glass of milk or cookies. While supplies last, FREE lanyards, pins and gamer id tags will be given to those who attend.

"In addition, you can purchase either a 3-month or 12-month Xbox Live Kit at $5 OFF the regular price. Stores will only be open one hour for this event. Contact your local GameStop to confirm participation and event details."
Find your local GameStop/EB Games here.

I, unfortunately will be working or wondering if I'm still employed, so I'll miss being the oldest dude at my local GameStop. Pick a fight with a punk for me.

"Stranglehold" Collector's Edition to have Hi-Def "Hard Boiled"?

Midway is hosting a short survey about their upcoming John Woo title Stranglehold, the video game sequel to Woo's Hard Boiled movie.

The last question on the survey is interesting -- it says Midway is thinking about releasing a Collector's Edition of the title, and asks,
"Would you pay an additional $10 for the Collector's Edition of Stranglehold if it contained the full-length feature film Hard Boiled, directed by John Woo, in High Definition?"
Ten bucks extra to get a hi-def movie (and a good one, at that)? Sure!

And if this signals the beginning of Blu-Ray add-ins for the PS3, and HD-DVD pack-ins for the Xbox 360, so much the better.

And remember, this is the game CliffyB said was one of the top amazing games at E3 2006:

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"So I have to ask all of the gaming journalists - as well as Midway's marketing and PR department - how is it that that Stranglehold is not getting more awards/press?

"Seriously.

"Whereas I was swamped at the show (demos and interview FTW) I DID manage to sneak away with Chantal and check out the show floor and a bunch of games. And whereas I wasn't able to check out the Wii (Sony and Nintendo, shame on you guys for the current controller pissing match - and Shiggy, if you'd stopped by to play Gears you might have dug it!) I WAS able to check out STRANGLEHOLD which, in my opinion, was one of the top three games of the show.

"This is one of the rare examples whereas Hollywood influence and star power really benefit the product. Chow Yun Fat and John Woo - and you PLAY THE MOVIE. Each area is like one big DM arena in which you're flipping around like a fucking ninja shooting fools while the environment falls apart around you.

"And no, I'm not just saying this because it's our engine. This shit is hot and needs some props."

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.

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Xbox Live is still down ...

Xbox Live outage notice
When? When?!

And what "amazing new" features?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Xbox Live unavailable Tuesday (10/17)

Xbox Live will be unavailable for "up to 24 hours" Tuesday, starting at midnight (PDT).

Full details are over at Xbox.com, but below is the short version. And, folks are saying a Xbox 360 Dashboard won't be part of this update -- that's later this fall.
  • Why? -- "Because we're adding some cool stuff. And we have to take the service and website offline in order to do it."
  • What stuff? -- "Secret cool stuff that we'll tell you about when we're back online October 18. Other stuff we'll be talking about later in the fall." (I'm guessing the "later in the fall" stuff will tie into that Xbox Dashboard update. Though I am holding out a little hope that Gears of War or some other game has got some secret unnannounced Xbox Live cool Trojan Horse functionality.)
  • Offline? 24 Hours? -- You can still earn offline achievements (which will be uploaded once Xbox Live is back online), and Xbox.com has a list of 9 other things you can do during the outage.

Not sure what time midnight PDT is for you? Check out TimeandDate.com for October 17.

"Marvel: Ultimate Alliance" -- Moon Knight

Moon Knight's getting a reboot in the comics world, so I'm glad to see he's just been announced as playable in the Marvel: Ulimate Alliance game (coming out in a week!).

And, though my team ("The Resistance") will likely stay the same, I'm likely to end up with a second team. I'm thinking a Captain America, Beta Ray Bill, Moon Knight, and Ghost Rider.

(Though I think Moon Knight and Ghost Rider may end up with religious differences that could cause friction within the team.)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

You have a PC pipe to Xbox Live MarketPlace; but I'd wait ...

Microsoft today launched a new Web site called "Xbox Live Pipeline", which lets you browse the Xbox 360 Xbox Live Marketplace from any (Flash-enabled) browser.

But I'd wait.

Sure, the thing's got potential, but allow me to be a bit pragmatic (or negative) for a bit.

Since I manage software, I'm going to go out on a limb and say this thing came to life as a skunk works project that some marketing person saw and loved, and it's not ready for primetime.

Why would I say this?

First, there's no reason for this thing to be. It wasn't promised, there's no event of which it can take advantage (or for which it can be used to take advantage), and as implemented, it feels like a solution in search of a problem. And because there are bugs -- Like the number of "Undefined" errors and empty content:



And Flash? Badly implemented Flash at that -- it's behaving inconsistently on the different boxes on which I'm trying it, and killing a Win2K box with IE6).

Again, the thing's got potential, but here's what it needs to be useful (in no particular order):
  1. Fewer bugs
  2. Better Flash implementation -- or do away with the Flash and AJAX the thing
  3. Clean up "Demos" -- "Demos" should not include Xbox Live Arcade demos (Xbox Live Arcade should be a sub-menu under this)
  4. "What's New" section -- C'Mon, the Xbox Dashboard has this, so this should, too
  5. Sorting and sorting options -- alphabetical, by genre, by date, by event (X06, TGS, Bringing it Home, etc.)
  6. Fix the sound -- It's cute that it's got the Xbox Dashboard sound, but there's a caching or codec problem, and there's an irritating beginning-of-file buzz at times
  7. Search -- This is a limited amount of info, so add search so I can type in "Dead Rising" and get all of the trailers, demo, themes, and gamer picts; Simple Search would be fine
  8. Integration with Xbox.com -- This thing touts itself as "Your One-Stop Guide to Xbox Live MarketPlace"; not so much, and it seems to be in competition with a lot of the MyXbox.com stuff
  9. Integration with Windows Live ID -- I should be able to log in to Xbox.com, and move between the two
  10. My Xbox Live MarketPlace -- Add a view (or functionality throughout) that shows what I've downloaded before, and what I haven't; get really fancy, and show me what I've downloaded, and what I currently have on my hard drive (at last login)
  11. Set up downloads from the Web -- I want to be able to queue as many downloads as I want from the Web, and When I log in to my Xbox Live Dashboard, the first 6 items should start downloading, and the queue refresh whenever "[PendingDownloads] <>Alerts -- Tell me when there's new stuff, and let me tell you what kind I want -- Per Item? All? Just Demos? Frequency (Per entry? Daily/Weekly summary?)? I like Major Nelson's Xbox Live MarketPlace updates, but this should arguably be the source
  12. Friends List -- Sure, it's a bit redundant with other sites, but why not? At the least, a little box that says "2 Friends online" (which pretty much represents my world of friends)

They do now seem to have the survey working (it was listed as "no longer active when the site first launched), so there's an opportunity there to give feedback. As is the Xbox.com "whishlist" forum.

Yes, this blog ended up on both ...

More "Marvel: Ulimate Alliance"

An update to my Marvel: Ultimate Alliance excitement:

Beta Ray Bill is playable. Beta. Ray. Bill.

Horse-faced Thor.

Hey, don't judge, he's one of my favorite characters.

Oh, and they revealed Colossus to be exclusive to next-gen platforms; Thing has a lot of costumes; Captain America has his "classic" costume (not so much, since no bell boots, but I'm good with that); Wolvie's got his brown and yellows, and Iron Man looks pretty sweet.

But Beta Ray Bill!

Beta Ray Bill

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Unfettered Blather: "Top 10 annoying things about next gen"

Unfettered Blather has a post on the "Top 10 annoying things about next gen".

From a position of absolutely no authority whatsoever, I thought I'd comment.

10. - Still waiting for Next Gen to arrive
When the X-Box 360 hit the market I thought “It’s here! It’s here!” Boy was I excited. With the last generation of the console wars clearly won by Sony I was ready to see how the new competition was going to shape up. So far it hasn’t shaped up at all. Microsoft has their team on the field and the other two teams are still in training camp.


I'm not sure I get this detail underneath the gripe -- the comment sounds like it's actually for #9 below. I would agree the next-gen didn't show for the first few to several months after the Xbox 360 launch, but games like Oblivion, Dead Rising, Lost Planet, Gears of War (maybe; not sure it's a killer app in any way from what's been shown), Viva Pinata, etc. are changing that.

What do people expect for "Next Gen"? "Games that look and play better than previous gen"? Dead Rising. Bang. Done. Or do they mean "Games that play fundamentally differently and change the game play paradigm"? is that even a fair criteria?
9. - Letting Microsoft define the Next Gen market
Microsoft has a ten mile head start in a fifty mile marathon. That means there is still plenty of time to overtake them, but that’s still one hell of a lead. No matter how you look at it, Microsoft has essentially placed the next generation on their terms. Everyone else has to play catch up.


Yeppers. As much as Sony wants to say this is a non-issue (which they need to stop saying, because it's seriously shaking their credibility), a year lead, more solid portfolio (with a larger sencond-gen holiday portfolio than Sony will have of first-gen), and greater market and mindshare (a la MTV, Wal-Mart/Best Buy kiosks and advertising) puts Microsoft seriously ahead.

Add to this Sony's serious PS3 hardware shortage and apparent plan to self-cannibalize sales with the rumored, cheaper silver slimline PS2, and equally rumored (but more officially denied) PSP price drop.

(Note to Sony: The only game company that's been able to offer multiple hardware offerings, avoid self-cannibalization, and turn sharp quarter-over-quarter profit is Nintendo.)

8. - Stupid name changes
With Nintendo’s revolutionary ideas, revolutionary control, and an approach to the console market that leverages their position as a smaller, more flexible, and more innovative company they had the perfect name for their console. Instead they decide to change the name to something that will inspire pee jokes for the next ten years. Brilliant, just brilliant! The best part is realizing the person who came up with the name “Wii” probably makes more money than I do.


No argument here. Possibly my biggest disappointment of the "Next-Gen wars" (though Nintendo is now calling the Wii "New-Gen").

Oh, and I think he should have said "will inspire pii jokes".

7. - $60 games
With Microsoft facing little competition, they can charge whatever they want. Gamers have been complaining about the high cost of games for awhile, and raising prices doesn’t seem like a smart move to me. After all, it doesn’t matter how much a game costs because the price is pretty much fixed upon release, so the amount of copies sold means everything. Even so, the next gen market is still small so Microsoft needs to get the most for each game it can. Besides, it’s not like anyone else is out there fighting them. Expect this trend to continue till after Christmas when all the consoles are released and retail hits their usual yearly sales slump.


OK, so there's a bit of convoluted misinfo here (unintentional, I'm sure).

First, Microsoft first-party games (at least until Gears of War) are still at $50, so they're not trying to "get the most for each game it can" (beyond what they already do). Also, not really sure what "the price is pretty much fixed upon release" means, since it's not -- the Manufacturer Suggested Price (MSP) is not mandated (legally), and that's why companies like Fry's often make Xbox 360 games $10-$20 "loss-leaders" the weekend they release. Besides, games prices are tailing faster than historically, making them more accessible more quickly.

Speaking of historical (and playing a bit of a devil's advocate), keep in mind game prices have stayed pretty constant over the last 20 years (unlike movie ticket prices, probably the closest parallel). And you can't use reduced costs in publishing or music as a parallel, because those things are getting less complicated to create, with more accessible distribution channels, increasing profit even while reducing per-SKU MSP.

Now, what I don't like is paying $60 bucks because I'm covering the games advertising, not production (ahem, Electronic Arts). We're ostensibly doing this on Gears of War (Microsoft), since Mark Rein said Epic Games "only" spent $8-10M to develop first-party published Gears (but keep in mind it's first-party published; not developed, like Rare's steaming pile of Perfect Dark Zero).

6. - Microsoft’s Multiple Personality Disorder
Probably not Microsoft’s fault really, but it is fun watching titles getting released on the X-Box 360, the X-Box, and PC all at the same time. I need the 360 why?


Because the the 360 does things the Xbox can't (or can't well). Like Xbox Live Arcade (the first gen version can't hold a candle). Xbox Live Marketplace. The newly released Vision camera. And Xbox 1 games (on the backwards compatibility list) done right look better on the Xbox 360.

And, yeah, Activision did gamers a huge disservice at the Xbox 360 launch with Xbox ports to the 360 that looked crappier than the Xbox versions, but that's changed. LEGO Star Wars II is a much prettier game on the 360. Oblivion is playable without a high-end PC. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance looks like it will be far slicker on the Xbox 360 than Xbox.

And with Live Anywhere, Microsoft is offering the same product to different interests. Sure, I'm a PC and console gamer, but there's a huge "either-or" demographic.
5. - Who needs backwards compatibility anyway?
It was the mini-trend we hardly knew. Once we saw the PS2 could play Playstation games it seemed like we had a sure thing on our hands, especially with Microsoft being the kings of backwards compatibility with Windows. Alas, it seems all for naught. A major selling point for alot of these consoles would be the ability to still play all your own games, but for whatever reason the development teams just couldn’t figure it out. I still wonder if the 360’s compatibility problems are as bad as people make it out to be, but gamers are clearly not satisfied, and Sony’s mewlings aren’t building any confidence.


So, "but for whatever reason the development teams just couldn’t figure it out" is bit unfair. The core GPU architecture changed (from nVidia to ATI). The fact that folks are able to get games to play through emulation is pretty big from a technical perspective, and Microsoft's "Emulation Ninjas" are probably far less recognized
than they should be.

Yes, there are problems. Fable and Ninja Gaiden suffer horribly. Halo 2, Stubbs the Zombie, and Black are great. Sure, I think Microsoft maybe woke up a little late to the game for focusing on the "importance" of this to gamers, so they should have either been proactive, or eschewed it altogether. And stuck with either
decision.

But, there are around 300 Xbox 1 games playable on Xbox 360. That's huge.

And Sony? Allegedly behind teh 8-ball on their backwards compatibility, there may be reduced emulated functionality, delayed or deferred functionality, or a mini, embedded PS2 physically inside the PS3, taking up all that nice, needed, cooling cavity space. We'll see how that works out.

4. - Chasing Nintendo
You can’t just ignore changes in the industry, but it sure is fun watching these two megacorporations scrambling to keep up with Nintendo’s ideas. Of course it’s one thing to respond to change, it’s entirely different to come up with new innovations of your own. Nintendo is playing smarter this generation, will they keep it up?

Nintendo is playing riskier this generation -- and I, for one, hope it pays off. I don't know that they're playing smarter. Innovative, yes. Wiill people enjoy it for long gaming periods? Is the physical bar implementation (that you need to mount to your TV, and won't work for my projector screen) going to give the fidelity you need, and not be an eyesore on your expensive plasma? Will the decision to not include the promised DVD playback feature reduce the perception of value-add?

Will the price point (which makes Nintendo money, as opposed to the other console guys) let consumers know the Wii is "valuable", but be low enough to keep them from paying $50 (or $150) more to buy an Xbox 360?

I'm going to write more about Nintendo in a separate, dedicated post, because I think what they're doing is pretty significant.

As far as innovation, will Microsoft's/GestureTek, Inc.'s SDK and gesture sensing technology for the Xbox Live Vision Camera (and the library of VGC tools available to Xbox developers) breed Wii-like innovation, without the restriction of the physical bars taped to the TV?

3. - Cost between consoles and computers vanishing
$60 games? Expensive peripherals? Consoles being released at a $600 price point? Anyone notice that desktop computers just continue to go down in price despite becoming ever more powerful? Consoles still have a lot of advantages over PC’s, but the most powerful incentive of console games is weakening.

Fair questions, bu tI have not found a sub-$1,000 gaming PC that makes me want to give up the experience optimized for a console. Also, there's the "either-or" demographic thing I mentioned for #6.
2. - Dual price SKU nonsense
“You can buy our system or you can spend $100 less to get a castrated system. Wow! Are we a great company or what?”

No argument here. I think Microsoft could have made the 360 a bigger deal if developers and content providers were able to count on a hard drive being there. I fully expect this to bite them even more down the road.
1. - Sony’s Alternate Reality
No matter how you spin it, we still just want a game console first. Go push your format war somewhere else.

Again, no argument, though I'll go a bit further and say I think Sony has potentially made a company-costing timing mistake.

Delays in format approval outside of Sony control. High additional cost. Bigger loss per box (which may have had the side effect or been a directive for reduced PS3 shipments this fall).

And 1x Blu-Ray speed in the PS3 or 12x DVD-9 speed and optimized disc seek on the Xbox 360? I'll go with Option B.

So there's my two-cents -- with no disrespect at all toward Jason "Botswana" Cox over at Unfettered Blather -- I'm grateful for him giving me such a thoughtful, complete springboard opportunity.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

More on Susan O'Connor

I mentioned Susan O'Connor during the Austin Game Conference.

O'Connor is the writing force behind Gears of War and BioShock (and a whole lot of other stuff). But these are "Two games that will own me".

Between the Austin Game Conference, Tokyo Game Show, and Micorosoft's X06, I got behind on my Austin Chronicle reading.

Turns out the issue right after the conference had a story on Susan.

And you can read it online.

Peter Pan indeed. More power to her ...

Friday, October 06, 2006

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance

I am so stoked for Marvel: Ultimate Alliance -- there are no words ...

As part of the VIP community (relax, anybody can get in), which gives me early reveals of characters, and alternate costumes (a comic fan boy's dewey dream).

Though I was taken a bit aback by the recent Spider-Man "reveal":
"Fans of the Clone War should be pleased that Scarlet Spider IS in the game!"
¿QuĂ©? «¿Is there such a thing?»

"Fans of the Clone War"? Riiight ....

But, the costumes are cool, and though they don't show it, they did announce the costume I want:
"And finally, yes it's confirmed that you will see Spider-Man in his black Symbiote costume in the game. We aren't allowed to show that to you yet, but we assure you that you'll see it soon enough..."
So, what was the hang up? Sony/Spider-Man 3 approvals? (That's my guess.)

Here are the picts, including the topical Civil War "Iron Spidey":

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance Spider-Man
The comment for the last costume makes me think these may be more than re-skins; costumes may change stats:

"You can thank Tony Stark - aka Iron Man - for this superb outfit that's particularly good for melee fighting."

This would also fit in with the "War Machine" costume for Iron Man comment:

In fact, one of Iron Man’s costumes turns him into a different playable
character entirely…

Of course, going back to the Scarlet Spider, there's a similar questionable skin for my personal fav Captain America -- "The Captain" (later co-opted into the equally I-don't-care character US Agent) -- What, Nomad was "too lame"?

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance Captain America
Not that any of this lessens my stokedness for the game.

And, via the "Create a Team" widget on the site, and inspired by recent Civil War events (and my holding a candle for writers to pull Spidey's webbed head out of his webbed ass), I've created my own team -- "The Resistance":

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance The Resistance

Of course, this could change a bit, since there are still 5-6 more characters to reveal between now and October 24th (Hawkeye, Iron Man, and Mr. Fantastic have already been revealed, and with print ads showcasing The Thing, I'm expecting him, too).

Except Cap. Cap won't change ...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

"Bringing it Home" Summary

Microsoft's X06 was a bigger deal to me as an Xbox 360 owner than the Tokyo Game Show, and the stuff that came out was -- in my mind -- a bigger deal for the industry.

But TGS had some decent stuff, too. A lot of Xbox Live content (which ramped up for X06), and some important announcements (1080P on the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive) made it engaging. And there were some great trailers for both Microsoft and Sony titles.

And X06? Wow. But I have an Xbox 360 -- I don't yet have a PS3. So I'm biased.

Things like the Gears of War looking to usher in truly next-gen gaming (along with Assassin's Creed), BioShock shaking up game paradigms, Japanese-centric Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey coming to the West, Splinter Cell 4 and GTA4 content exclusivity, Peter Jackson forming Wingnut Interactive (and new Halo IP), Halo Wars, and the Microsoft/Marvel/Cryptic Studios MMORPG deal ("If you can't sue them, join them").

Good times.

Anyway, here's my one-place summary for the "Bringing it Home" promotion for TGS and X06:

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Game company lessons for other corporations

Thanks to Hunter: The Reckoning (one of my favorite all-time games), I'm a big fan of High Voltage Software. I've also met Chief Creative Officer Eric Nofsinger a couple of times, and he seems together, pleasant, and extremely talented. (Eric has constantly changing hair that's as cool as his name.)

And I like their website -- it's fun and useful.

So I like reading things like Gamasutra's feature about High Voltage Software.

High Voltage is one of the largest of the remaining independent developers. That's important to me, because I think there's a culture and innovation that lives in that kind of environment, and as a guy in a corporation (note -- not a "corporate guy"), I look at companies like High Voltage and people like Eric to see what I can improve BigHugeCorp or me as a manager. (It doesn't sound like I've got a man-crush on Eric, does it? 'Cause he'll have to get in line behind Cliff Bleszinsky, based on my previous posts.)

Anyway, some particular points I took from the article:

  • Core hours are 4 hours. "Core hours" are those hours that -- as a generality -- folks are expected to be in the office, so you can plan meetings around that time with a reasonable assurance folks will be available.

    "People work very hard," Nofsinger acknowledges. "As part of that, we need to be very flexible with people, so that they can take care of what they need to, and be happy, and give it their all."

    This makes so much sense. I worked for IBM out of college, and they had flex hours, but they were like from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Of course, I had a second-line manager who had his "core hours" of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., which is part of why I left -- it didn't matter if I was working until 9 p.m. on weekends; if I came in at 9:02 a.m., his spies let him know).

    It's also important, because in my current role at BigHugeCorp, I fully expect to be impacted nights and weekends on a regular basis. But heaven forbid I move my lunch to 2:30 p.m. on a day I have no meetings so I can meet with someone for a workout -- I'll hear about it.

    I just realized what a fun rhyme "Core hours are four hours" is.
  • Licensed IP is a challenge on the video game front (think every Batman game), and Nofsinger has some thoughts on that, too.

    "We believe that licensed games have gotten a negative stigma. It’s not always that licensed properties are inherently bad, it’s what people do with them."

    Compare this to what Peter Jackson said recently in movies based on games corollary: "Good films just need good characters, good storyline and a great director to bring it to life and make a film that you've never seen before. That's what it needs. It doesn't matter a damn whether it's based on a game, a book or a piece of chewing gum, you know? That's irrelevant. It's what actually ends up on the screen that's important."
  • And for some weird reason, the pict of the motion capture facility from sister studio Red Eye Studio really gets my excitement up.
  • And quotes that are sticking with me:

    "Just loving what you do isn't enough. You also have to provide a good work environment."

    "It’s an exciting time to be in games right now, with the console transition. No one really knows what's going to happen, everyone’s hedging their bets."

    "Our big mantra right now is quality. Quality, quality, quality. We've done some games that were good. We've done some games that weren’t so good. We want to be known as the company that is reliable and hits its time-frames, hits its budgets, and makes high-quality products. Good products for the people who are going to buy them." (Good advice for any development shop, regardless of vertical market.)

    "As long as there's two guys with a dream somewhere, there's going to be little games."